Gem Spa is a newspaper stand and candy store located on the corner of St. Mark's Place and Second Avenue in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City. It opened under another name in the 1920s, and received its current name in 1957. It is open 24 hours a day, and is known for being commonly considered to be the birthplace of the authentic New York City-style egg cream, which its awning describes as "New York's Best." It does not stock pornographic magazines, and it gets magazines delivered one or two days before other New York City newsstands.
In the 1950s, Gem Spa was a gathering place for beats, and in the 1960s it was a hippie hangout, known for selling a wide selection of underground newspapers. New York Magazine named it the best newsstand in the East Village in 2001, and it has been featured on television programs about food, including Kelly Choi's Secrets of New York.
The building in which Gem Spa is located, 131 Second Avenue, or 36 St. Marks Place, was built in 1898-1900 and was designed by Louis F. Heinecke in the Renaissance Revival style. It is located within the East Village/Lower East Side Historic District, which was created in October 2012.
Secrets of New York - GEM SPA - Kelly Choi gets an egg cream at one of NYC's most famous corner stands.
The Lower East Side History Project reports the site was an outlet for the Chain Shirt Shop in 1922, and that Gem Spa had opened by the 1950s. Sociologist Daniel Bell, who claimed in the 1970s that his uncle Hymie created the egg cream, says that another man called Hymie owned a candy store serving egg creams on the site of Gem Spa in the 1920s. Village Voice reported in the 1970s that people remembered going to the store before World War I. For thirty years up until 1957 the store was owned by the Goldfeder family.
From 1957 until at least 1969 the store was owned by Ruby Silverstein and Harold Shepard, who employed 11 staff to keep it open 24 hours a day - Silverstein estimated that every 30 seconds someone walked in the store. The clientele initially mainly bought Jewish and foreign-language papers, which began to change around 1963 as they sold more copies of the Village Voice and underground magazines. Silverstein and Shepard gave the store its current name, initially Gem's Spa - the name comes from Gladys, Etta, and Miriam, the names of the wives of Silverstein and Shepard and Shepard's ex-wife.
In 1966, The Village Voice called it the "official oasis of the East Village"; it was known as a "hippie hangout". Abbie Hoffman gathered people for his 1967 protest at the New York Stock Exchange at Gem Spa, Allen Ginsberg called it a "nerve center" of the city, and the Art Workers' Coalition had their offices above the store. Robert Mapplethorpe bought Patti Smith an egg cream there shortly after she moved to New York in 1967. In the late 60s it was midway between two other iconic venues, the Fillmore East and the Electric Circus.
The owner in 1971 was Irving Stein. That year Village Voice reported "A permanent cluster of junkies using its doorways and newspaper benches as home base hasn't helped business any" and the store was closed for a time from February 1972 when it ran into financial trouble and the counter-culture that had helped support it collapsed. The storefront caught fire that May, but it reopened that June with new management.
The owner as of 2015 is Ray Patel, who was born in the early 1940s in Gujarat, India. He runs the store with his wife and bought the store in 1986, when he replaced one brick wall with glass. He does no advertising and relies instead on word of mouth. He learned making egg creams from the previous Italian owner, who in turn learned it from his Jewish predecessor. The store manager Salim said in 2010 that only four people know the recipe.
In popular culture
Gem Spa is featured on the back cover of the first album by the New York Dolls. Poets Allen Ginsberg and Ted Berrigan both mentioned the stand in their works. Gem Spa is the name of one of the main works painted by Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1982.
- Media related to Gem Spa at Wikimedia Commons